Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Bookmarks, Islands in the Sea: At Times, Therapy Can Reinforce Isolation

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Bookmarks, Islands in the Sea: At Times, Therapy Can Reinforce Isolation

Article excerpt

Bookmarks By Richard Handler

Islands in the Sea At times, therapy can reinforce isolation

The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz Beacon Press. 224 pp. ISBN-13:978-0-8070-0034-2 

Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick W. W. Norton. 269 pp. ISBN 978-0-393-06170-3

Sometimes it seems that the very idea of shame has been banished from our door. The underwear ads on bus stops are more lurid than the pornography of my childhood, while revelations of celebrity rehab, rather than a secret to be hidden at all costs, are a staple of cable TV. Until recently, about the only thing people appeared to be ashamed of was being exposed as making too little money (though with our current economic meltdown, that, too, seems passZ). According to therapists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz, however, one shameful secret patients are still likely to conceal is that that they're lonely.

Depressed? It's become popular parlance. People use the term even when they're just sad, forlorn, or having a bad spell. But lonely? Not me! It's like admitting--to use that most stigmatizing term from high school--that you're a "loser."

Still, the evidence is piling up that loneliness is an increasing problem. According to the 2000 census, 25 percent of U.S. households consist of only one person. Contrast this with population statistics from 1940, when people living alone accounted for roughly 7 percent of the population. Duke University researchers report that, between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with whom the average person discussed personal and important matters dropped from three to two. Most stunningly, say Olds and Schwartz, a husband-and-wife team of psychiatrists who teach at Harvard Medical School, "the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters, tripled. . . . Individuals without a single confidant now made up nearly a quarter of those surveyed."

In The Lonely American, Olds and Schwartz tick off the cultural reasons for this epidemic of loneliness, which probably won't surprise anybody: America has always been a land of rugged individualism, celebrating a cult of personal autonomy for close to two centuries. (Think Henry David Thoreau's Walden, Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance," Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and any number of frontier heroes and heroines from way back.) Cultural icons like the solitary cowboy (think John Wayne in The Searchers or Alan Ladd in Shane), action heroes like Rambo and Lara Croft, and legions of haunted detectives staring into the darkness late at night fill our imaginations. North Americans as a people move often, break connections, and extol individual freedom as if mobility and autonomy were God's gift to the planet.

The result is that Americans spin through their isolated days like whirling dervishes. Instead of meeting other human beings, many of us succumb to electronic distractions. We gaze into our BlackBerries while walking. We endlessly check off items on to-do lists, caught up in what the writer Barbara Ehrenreich calls "the cult of busyness." Underneath all this display of frantic activity lies the painfulness of social isolation and loneliness. For that, we hope that psychotherapists, like good sheriffs, ride to the rescue.

Therapy: Bad for Patients and Therapists?

All well and good! That's what therapy is for, isn't it? Therapists are trained to address the dynamics of emotional distress, the feelings and symptoms that keep people disconnected and in pain. But there's the hitch. According to Olds and Schwartz, what usually goes on between the therapist and patient may not be the best way to help patients emerge from social isolation. Instead, therapy may teach lessons that are exactly the opposite of what patients need to know about how to build relationships with other people. …

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